Investment in culture and nature to boost the nation’s health

A diverse group of volunteers sitting outdoors wearing warm casual clothing on a sunny cold winters day

From wild swimming to creative activities with young people, 12 new research projects explore how culture and nature can level up health and wellbeing across the UK.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has today announced 12 research projects that will unleash innovative ways of using culture and nature to tackle health disparities.

The programme will see researchers working in collaboration with communities and health partners across the UK.

They will establish how cultural and natural interventions can be placed at the service of public health.

Improving health and wellbeing

Projects include:

Arts for the Blues

‘Arts for the Blues’ is an Edge Hill University-led project.

It uses the arts to tackle depression across the north-west of England, an area that has high levels of mental health problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wild Swimming and Blue Spaces

‘Wild Swimming and Blue Spaces’ is a University of Nottingham-led project.

It will explore how to improve messaging about the physical and mental health benefits of cold-water swimming to reach diverse communities and enhance inclusion in blue space recreation.

Branching Out

‘Branching Out’ will tackle mental health disparities in young people with community artscapers training volunteers to work with arts and nature in schools to address disparities.

Art at the Start

‘Art at the Start’ is a project that will investigate the role of creative community-led programming.

It will offer targeted parent-infant relationship interventions for vulnerable families and traditionally under-served groups in Scotland.

Levelling up

The intention of this programme is to explore strategies for scaling up small, locally-based approaches and to better understand how they can inform and influence system change.

The projects will generate evidence to support the rollout of place-based approaches to creative health, growing an evidence base for positive change.

Led by AHRC, in partnership with the National Centre for Creative Health, the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) have also partnered on this £1.5 million programme.

It is anticipated that these projects will pilot a wider research agenda to be launched later this year.

It will enable this research to be developed further to enhance health outcomes for communities over a longer period.

Public health and wellbeing

Professor Helen Chatterjee, AHRC’s Health Disparities Programme Director, says:

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted stark health disparities across the UK.

Access to local cultural activities and natural spaces can play an important role in health and wellbeing.

This programme takes a place-based approach to public health, exploring new avenues to tackle health disparities across the country.

By connecting research directly with decision making at local, regional and national levels, we hope to build a new scalable model that leads to healthier communities across the whole of the UK.

Advancing good practice and research

Alex Coulter, Director of the National Centre for Creative Health, says:

We are really delighted to be working in partnership with AHRC and with the 12 research projects across the UK.

The National Centre for Creative Health aims to advance good practice and research, helping foster the conditions for creative health to be integral to health and social care and wider systems.

Working with Professor Helen Chatterjee, we will ensure that learning from the research projects informs wider systems change.

The range and scope of the projects will provide a rich evidence base for the spread and adoption of creative health approaches that can mitigate health disparities.

Further information

Funded projects

Rooted in nature: scaling up a programme of nature-based activities for a diverse group of young people in Middlesbrough

Dr Catherine El Zerbi, Newcastle University

This is an interdisciplinary project, in collaboration with community partners in Middlesbrough.

It will see a diverse group of local young people using arts-based methods to help us understand:

  • what they most value about participating in local nature-based activities
  • how such activities may improve health and wellbeing.

These insights will help to assess what infrastructure is needed to optimise nature-based programmes in the future.

Art at the Start: creative community intervention for perinatal and infant mental health

Dr Josephine Ross, University of Dundee

This project will embed four arts therapists across four art galleries in Scotland offering targeted interventions for vulnerable families, in addition to broader outreach to traditionally under-served groups.

Both early relationships and access to the arts have been shown to have protective benefits for health and wellbeing.

This intervention stands to have a long-term impact on the lives of the families we reach.

Prescribe Heritage Highland: scaling up non-pharmaceutical interventions in remote and rural areas

Dr Sara Bradley, University of the Highlands and Islands

The project will examine the key conditions and mechanisms necessary for scaling up non-pharmaceutical cultural and natural heritage interventions which can be socially prescribed in a rural context.

Museums and ranger services in the Highlands of Scotland will be delivering cultural and nature-based programmes to promote mental well-being and address health disparities.

Wild Swimming and Blue Spaces: mobilising interdisciplinary knowledge and partnerships to combat health disparities at scale

Professor Svenja Adolphs, University of Nottingham

Wild swimming and blue space recreation offer the potential for significant physical, social, emotional, and cultural gains.

This project will use a creative, multidisciplinary approach to develop authentic public messaging that ensures these benefits can be realised equitably and at scale.

Arts and Culture in Health Ecosystems (ARCHES)

Professor Mark Gamsu, Leeds Beckett University

Community organisations have a long track record of working in neighbourhoods with people who experience health disparities.

They work in ways that goes with the grain of communities’ own cultures and creative interests, building strong and trusted relationships with local people.

This approach is too often not understood or sufficiently supported within local health systems.

This project is working with four community organisations to identify ways that this approach becomes more sustainable and scalable.

Social Prescribing for All (SP4ALL): increasing diversity in cultural and natural social prescribing programmes through shared training

Professor David Sheffield, University of Derby

Our project will ensure more inclusivity in social prescribing by sharing skills and knowledge between experienced practitioners and trainees from ethnic minority communities.

Piloting the work will enable us to develop a handbook of good practice, which will also be presented at a virtual conference.

Scaling-up Human Henge: using prehistoric cultural heritage sites to enhance mental health well-being in marginalized communities

Professor Timothy Darvill, Bournemouth University

Making ancient monuments and landscapes work to enhance the mental health wellbeing of present-day communities not only gives meaning to the past but also hope for the future.

Through this project we will use aspects of our rich prehistoric heritage to co-create innovative approaches to social prescribing through cultural heritage therapy programmes.

Branching Out: tackling mental health disparities in schools with community artscapers

Professor Nicola Walshe, UCL

This project aims to determine how successful elements from an established programme can be expanded from school-based approaches reaching small numbers of children to whole communities.

The programme supports children’s mental health through art-in-nature-based practice.

We will do this by adding capacity through engaging community-based volunteers in schools (community artscapers).

Arts for the Blues: towards integrating the use of the arts in healthcare and cultural settings to tackle depression and improve wellbeing in the north-west

Professor Vicky Karkou, Edge Hill University

This project involves developing a strategy for the integration in healthcare and cultural settings of the ‘Arts for the Blues’ model.

This is a creative group therapy for adults and children:

  • with depression
  • with low mood
  • with anxiety
  • who find it difficult to talk about their problems.

It will be adapted to support spread and adoption in the north-west of England.

Connecting Roots: co-creating a green social prescribing network in Walsall for health and wellbeing

Dr Qian Sun, Royal College of Art

Connecting Roots will co-create a green social prescribing network that enables collaborative working of:

  • voluntary, community and social enterprises
  • local authorities
  • primary care
  • funding bodies
  • policymakers.

The goal is to create a more integrated care system to increase the chance of success in scaling nature-based activities for health and wellbeing.

Scaling Up Inspiring Ashfield: extending place-based social prescribing support across mid-Nottinghamshire

Professor Clifford Stevenson, Nottingham Trent University

Inspiring Ashfield is an initiative designed to support social prescribing in the Ashfield area.

It will do this by providing a bespoke calendar of events and activities to meet the needs of local residents suffering from:

  • loneliness
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • financial stress.

Our research project will document how the initiative enhances the benefits of social prescribing and will use this evidence to adapt the initiative to two further disadvantaged areas nearby.

The outcome will be to produce a toolkit of resources to help other deprived communities across the UK support their local social prescribing services in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Phoenix Takes Flight (PTF): exploring usability and scalability challenges with community-based health support via social prescribing

Dr Mahsa Honary, Lancaster University

This research will explore how community-based organisations delivering social prescribing initiatives can expand and grow within integrated care systems.

The project will draw upon a growing network of community partners delivering social prescribing in the north-west of England.

It will explore the benefits and challenges of delivering community-based health support for a wide range of participants.

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